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Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is a large, diverse, and daunting collection of film that stretches over 10 years. Supplying the fans with 22 movies and another, Spider-Man: Far From Home, on the way within the next couple of days. With such a large body of work, it comes as no surprise that some of the films could be overshadowed by their own familial movies. Perhaps one of the most underrated examples of this can be found with Iron Man 3. The first of the trilogy starring Robert Downey Jr. was the start of the MCU phenomenon and is credited with changing the superhero movie game entirely (deservedly so). But the third film is often stacked at the bottom of MCU lists (not deservedly so). Iron Man 3 is actually the secret gem of the 22 movies. As opposed to the other movies before and after it, Iron Man 3 is a new kind of superhero story with more of an emotional depth. Those emotions provide for excellent growth within Tony’s relationships (both old and new), which inherently gives the viewer a new personal look into the characters. From that, the story-telling grows intensely in this movie and does something bold. Iron Man 3 was another side to the superhero story that is portrayed accurately and leaves viewers and fans with an even stronger attachment to the characters than they had before, this is an MCU film like no other.
Iron Man 3 picks up after the events of the first Avengers film and does not neglect to touch on the personal effects that the battle of New York had on Tony Stark. Unlike most superhero films, the audience is allowed to see the raw vulnerability of a damaged main hero used as part of the plot without it diminishing the male hero as "weak." The movie does not hold back in that aspect. That is shown heavily as Tony goes on one of his classic bumbling stunts to overwork himself rather than participate in an evening spent with Pepper, his girlfriend. He admits to being a mess, “Nothing’s been the same since New York... The only reason I haven't cracked up is probably because you moved in.” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013) Tony isn't ashamed to lean on Pepper, just as the movie isn’t afraid to show the male lead seeking mental support from his strong female partner. One of the greatest characteristics of Mr. Stark is his dedication to helping and protecting others, whether that means sacrificing himself for it, and that is heavily explored in the film. Tony openly admits to having problems with his mental health. “But honey, I can't sleep. You go to bed, I come down here. I do what I know. I tinker. Threat is imminent. And I have to protect the one thing that I can't live without. That's you.” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013). That line in full is hard-hitting but even just the single “But honey, I can’t sleep” is powerful. Pepper cradling Tony in her arms as a protector shortly after the lines of dialogue is an intimate and touching moment of vulnerability that can't be found in other MCU films.
Tony Stark has always been one of the MCU’s biggest yet... emotionally tormented heroes. Over the 22 film saga, Iron Man 3 remains to be the first one to depict a character's struggle with mental health. Which is such an important and amazing topic within the movie. Marvel has such a presence in media and the fact that the film accurately portrays something that so many people struggle with and through an immensely popular character who is associated with being strong... is not talked about enough. For instance, the scene with Rhodey & Tony in the diner when the viewer first experiences an anxiety attack with Tony. The conversation of a threat is what Tony wanted to talk about but as it grows and puts him back in that chaotic state of mind, things start to fuzz. He’s struggling and breaks a crayon which shouldn’t bother him so much but it does. The restrained, built-up anxiety being set loose by something so little is just so real. “How did you get out of the Wormhole?” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013) a child asks, which happens to be a trigger for Tony and so he’s thrown full force into his anxiety attack that even he doesn’t understand. When Jarvis informs him of such, Tony literally cannot believe it. The movie’s portrayal of anxiety and PTSD through Tony is very personal and relatable. It’s an opportunity for the audience to understand these mental health issues and find themselves in a strong character.
While accurately depicting a struggle with mental health, Iron Man 3 also deals more with Tony personally rather than the "Iron Man hero." It takes the time to show the "non-hero" like problems because it’s a realistic element, something that could naturally occur as an effect to saving the world in a traumatizing way. A prominent topic of issue in this movie is Tony’s struggle to accept himself outside of the armor. He becomes just as reliant on the Iron Man suits as the civilians are. “And my suits, they're, uh... They're part of me.” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013). What it all comes down to is that, this is just as much a story about Tony learning he doesn’t need to be the Iron Man in order to be strong, as it is a superhero film. There is a personal mental/emotional struggle going on within the main character as the outside threat escalates. The audience is rooting for Tony to save himself just as much as they’re rooting for Iron Man to save the day. Because it’s all about the man under the suit in this film.
Stemming off of Tony’s personal struggle in Iron Man 3, it is partly because of that the audience got a better glimpse into his relationships. Be it, old/new or friendship/romance, the relationships are explored in heartwarming ways. Calling back to the statements about vulnerability, the viewer has been shared a new aspect of Tony’s romance with Pepper in which she acts as the protector/shoulder to lean on for him without the movie making that into a punchline. Such is the charm of their relationship in the film but once more, it does not skim over the difficult parts. The audience is thrown deep into their relationship struggles with Tony being a Superhero but in a more intimate way than other MCU films have dealt with the subject. The scene in which Tony is having a nightmare, for example, and calls the suit in his sleep which causes a frightening scare for Pepper. Not only does that accurately portray Tony’s inner turmoil, but it also shows the viewer the outer effects of his struggle and the way it hurts his relationship. This is a subject that isn’t touched on a lot in the 22 movie line-up. It is in Iron Man 3 that fans are shown a more personal side of these relationships..
The "Iron Family" is one of the best support systems a hero has in the MCU. Tony has not only Pepper but also Rhodey and Happy Hogan, his best friends. This movie really shines on the devotion Tony’s friends have for him without it being overpowering. Calling back to the diner scene when Tony starts to ramble about his new tech and how he could help. Rhodey responds with a soft “When's the last time you got a good night's sleep?...People are concerned about you, I’m concerned about you.” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013). Iron Man 3 takes a lot of time to show Tony’s got support. Just as much as he tries to protect them, they protect him, too. Happy is especially known for "doting" on Tony (and Pepper) during his time on screen. He never lets up on his protective services and the audience has this point enhanced with that glimpse to the past in 1999 when an explosion goes off (though minor) and Happy tackles Tony in seconds. And yes, it is his job, so of course he takes it seriously. But what this movie does well is show the details of their actual friendship. “Sunday nights. PBS. Downton Abbey. That's his show. He thinks it's elegant.” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013) Tony remembers Happy's favorite show and he does wake up grateful for that. Iron Man 3 is full of little moments of that nature, be it, for comedic effect or emotional.
The beauty of the relationship building in this movie is not just reserved for pre-established characters. Iron Man 3 introduces a character who is actually vital in the development of Tony’s character later on in the MCU. Harley Keener is a young boy who Stark runs into when taking shelter in the kids' garage. Tony learns of his bully and of his intelligence... reminding him somewhat of himself. They establish a quick banter together, “If I was building Iron Man and War Machine... I would have added in, the retro” “—Retro-reflective panels?”—“To make him stealth mode.” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013) Tony doesn’t dismiss the idea, he actually praises it. Keener allied with Stark in his quest to prevent the Mandarin's campaign. Through this, Harley earns a place in not only the audience’s heart, but also Tony’s. He proves his intelligence when he watches and tends over the Mark XLII armor. He also proves his heart in a deleted scene in which he saves Tony’s life by replacing his arc reactor for him when Tony takes it out to save the injured life of Harley’s bully. But perhaps the best part involving the kid is when Tony is driving and starts to experience another anxiety attack when the threat of losing his armor, that prominent issue in the film coming back, rises. Now, Harley is just a kid and, of course, has no clue what he should do to help. But the kid is just so... pure and that’s the beauty, Harley is just what Tony needed in that moment. His soft “You're a mechanic, right?...Why don't you just build something?” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013) reassures and comforts Tony. Harley and Tony’s dynamic was the beginning of an excellent MCU story that shows Tony’s softer side. His personality is still all there but he feels protective and a little proud of this kid. It was the warm-up to Tony’s father-son relationship with Peter Parker, which is not to discredit what came first. But those relationships are what helped Tony believe that he too could have a kid without ending up just like his father which was excellent story-building.
“True story about fortune cookies. They look Chinese. They sound Chinese. But they're actually an American invention. Which is why they're hollow, full of lies and leave a bad taste in the mouth.” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013). The fortune cook twist was the biggest reason most fans ended up hating Iron Man 3 but it actually was quite an amazing move. In this case, The Mandarin is the fortune cookie. This movie turns a character who’s based upon racial stereotypes into someone who was purposefully created to be that way in order to benefit a rich white man’s quest for power. Those stereotypes from a bygone era aren’t just presented for villainous purposes without it being addressed. Instead, this film decided to present an accurate portrayal of the villain in which he’s an American invention that preyed upon those ethnically and culturally ambiguous stereotypes instead of just being borderline offensive. It shows how racist and stereotypical themes are used to install fear and violence. The twist was a bold move but choosing to reveal that this character’s stereo-typically evil persona was actually purposeful was brilliant and delivered the unexpected.
As the twist suggests, a lot of thought went into the story-telling of Iron Man 3. Perhaps the biggest stand-out in this case is the fact that it was able to be a big superhero blockbuster while maintaining a message. Other MCU films have attempted such, the Captain America movies are a prime example, but none hit the nail on the head quite like this one. It’s a story about a man’s struggle with his mental health and a big superhero action film. Plus, all the while critiquing American exceptionalism and it never feels too big for the picture. There’s heart, humor, and something to take away. The way the film is organized comes full circle during the end-credit scene where it’s revealed why it was set up as a monologue from Tony. “You know, and thank you, by the way. For listening. Plus, something about just getting it off my chest, and putting it out there in the atmosphere, instead of holding this in...I mean, this is what gets people sick…” (Black , Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013). Tony was sharing this story with Bruce Banner, and inherently the audience as well, the entire time. The viewers suddenly feel as if they’ve been shared an intimate story from Tony’s life which is the beauty of the personal angle the film used.
Iron Man 3 was the seventh MCU film to be released and plenty more came after it. But there’s something within that story that allows it to stand-out. The fact that it was a new kind of superhero story plays a big role in this. Considering it took a heavy focus on vulnerability, mental health and Tony himself rather than "Iron Man." Through this, it evoked beautiful portrayals of differing relationships (be it with Pepper, Rhodey, Happy or Harley). And the story-telling itself put Iron Man 3 in a different category than the other MCU movies. The personal and emotional themed edge that the film carries may not please every Superhero movie fan but the movie nevertheless stands. It is an integral part to Tony Stark’s character arc and was the beginning of some changes for the character. Iron Man 3 is the secret gem buried within the MCU because it wasn’t just an Iron Man story but it was a Tony Stark story.